OAKLAND — Messalonskee High School’s world-ranked robotics team hopes a local competition involving basketballs and bridges will help demonstrate the value of the program to school district taxpayers.
After voters twice rejected the budget of Oakland-based Regional School Unit 18 over the summer, funding for robotics supplies and a coach stipend was eliminated from the third version of the budget, which will come before district voters Oct. 2.
Students on the team said they were unhappy about the cuts to their program and that they hoped to raise awareness in the community on Saturday, when they will host 16 robotics teams from around New England in an event called Mainely SPIRIT.
“We’re trying to figure out how to make the community know that we’re here and need the support,” Justin Shuman, a junior on the robotics team, said Thursday.
After a lackluster start to last year’s season, the team retooled its approach and took third place out of 100 teams that competed at the FIRST Robotics Competition World Championships in April.
Every year, the contest draws nearly 4,000 teams from around the world, including such places as Argentina, Brazil and Israel.
Under the direction of mathematics teacher Jamee Luce, the Messalonskee team’s 35 or so members engage in fundraising, recruitment and awareness events year-round; but the competitive season really begins in January, when they receive a box of gears, wheels and other equipment along with a description of that year’s challenge.
This year, the teams were given six weeks to build remote-control robots to compete in a modified three-on-three basketball game. Their creation, Mike, can be directed to roll around the floor where an extension allows him to flick basketballs under his frame. They then can be launched into the air using a series of pulleys and wheels at varying speeds that will determine the angle of the shot.
With six teams controlling six robots on the court at a time, the students say that the games themselves become a frenzy of excitement.
“There’s more energy than a football game, for sure,” according to Alex Dyer, who is also one of five cheerleaders on the robotics team.
Mike and his human drivers finished in the bottom half of two competitions, and at about the midway mark in two others. There was no indication that they would do so well at the world championships, but team member McKenzie Brunelle, also a junior, said the team got a boost by racking up extra points in a second portion of the competition, in which robots from opposing teams have to cooperate by balancing on a seesawlike bridge in the center of the court.
Most of the students in the club said they got involved in the competition for social reasons rather than an innate interest in robotics. A core group lunches together in Luce’s classroom; they also join up to swim, eat pizza, and discuss strategy at parties throughout the summer and the school year.
There’s no doubt that the club has influenced the career goals of its members.
Junior Dakota Condon said she’s not sure what occupation she’ll be seeking, but that her participation in the club has made her think a lot more about engineering fields.
Among a group of about a dozen members gathered recently, all but one had aspirations that included some type of engineering.
Involvement with the team also helps to build skills and confidence, said Sarah Ferguson, whose 16-year-old daughter, Taylor, is on the team.
“She likes the building, the mechanical aspect,” Ferguson said. “Now she knows how to fix things and use the computer to program. Her public speaking has also become much, much better. It’s helped her to come out of her shell.”
Win or lose on Saturday, the fate of Mike the robot is uncertain.
Unlike last year’s robot, which kicked soccer balls with dangerous levels of force, Mike has the potential to be a long-lived ambassador of the team.
“This one’s a really good show robot,” Brunelle said.
Mike already has made several local appearances, including at the school’s Homecoming event, where the team members encourage members of the public to take a turn at his controls.
Mike and his human teammates will be competing in the Rebound Rumble from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Messalonskee High School. A local craft fair to support the club will be held at the same time. Admission is free and open to the public.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287